Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A View from LaRue

Kellie LaRue is a parent in Seattle Schools and, in my opinion, a brilliant thinker on issues about budget and facilities.  This is her professional work and when she weighs in on issues at SPS, I listen.  Here's her take on what to do with the "extra" $11M for next year's budget.  (She sent these thoughts to Linda Sebring in Budgeting and to the Board.)

Kellie's thoughts (red bold mine:)
I have been following budget and capacity issues since 2002 and I have a incredibly simple and utterly boring recommendation, that would provide an immediate benefit to every corner of Seattle Public Schools - use the $11M as budget reserve to realign the building level staffing and budget cycle. 
Strategic Staffing Budget Reserve
This budget reserve would be used to Guarantee for Every School that they will maintain their staffing level for the following school year. In other words, the budget cycle would guarantee that schools would either stay the same OR receive additional staff for the subsequent school year. This would remove the current practice of reducing staff in the Spring, only to re-hire in the Fall. 

History of the Budget Cycle - WSF to WSS
The current budget cycle was created by needs and constraints that do not reflect the needs and constraints of a GROWING school district with capacity challenges.  IMHO, using these funds in a strategic budget reserve can realign the budget cycle with the current needs of the district. 

The primary reason for the change from the old Weighted Student Formula to the current Weighted Staffing Formula was to create STABILITY for a handful of schools who routinely gained and lost staff under the old Choice Assignment. Under that old model, there were “popular” schools with long wait lists, who had a incredible confidence in their enrollment and budget and were therefore able to make multiyear plans. These schools were confident that their wait lists meant that they would ALWAYS have enough students to support the budget. 

The downside of this system was that the annual enrollment uncertainty was focused on a small handful of schools, who did NOT have a wait list. These schools with NO wait list were virtually guaranteed instability as their enrollment shrank when waitlists moved. This situation was exasperated by OVERALL district enrollment declines and the corresponding budget reductions. 

The problems of annual budget and staffing uncertainty
The intention of the WSS was to provide staffing stability to these schools without a waitlist so they could more effectively retain staff and attract students and families. However, the result has been to create budget uncertainty at every school in the district. 

Many schools are now routinely losing a staff member in the Spring, only to have to replace a staff member in the Fall. This (very reasonable) conservative budget tool has the unintended consequence of creating staffing instability in every corner of the district. In some cases, this instability creates unnecessary staffing challenges. 
For example, Spanish teachers are routinely removed from the budget at the middle and high school level in the Spring, with the idea that it would be easier to hire a Spanish teacher than a math or science teacher. However, this year, Garfield released a Spanish teacher in the Spring and was unable to find even a long term substitute until after Thanksgiving. 

A strategic budget reserve would remove this uncertainty from EVERY SINGLE SCHOOL. 

Bottom Line
A strategic budget reserve would operate in a manner that is so simple, it is easy to underestimate its dramatic power to create stability. 
  • As the state funding formula is based on a three-year enrollment average, this model would more closely align with actual state funding. 
  • It would empower schools to make longer term hiring decisions. In the event of actual enrollment decline, there would be ample time to make adjustments at the building level. 
  • This could potentially eradicate the damaging practice of October staffing removals. By guaranteeing and ACTUAL staffing floor, school communities will have greater clarity about which staffing positions are tentative. 
  • Middle and High Schools will be able to build more robust and strategic master schedules. 
  • Elementary schools will be able to make more strategic hiring decisions to start the year with either a long term sub or a new hire, depending on the level of certainty about enrollment increases.
Thank you for considering this recommendation.


Po3 said...

Imagine, no staff churn, district-wide. What a gift!

They will never do it, simply because the idea came from a parent.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Reprinting for anonymous - no anonymous comments, please:

Love that idea - send it to the School Board and Mr. Nyland!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Well, logical decisions are not the SPS Admin strong suit, but one could hope. It such a simple elegant way of solving a very disruptive issue - it puts, ultimately, kids first. But simple and elegant and solving are sadly, nowhere in the SPS admin vocabulary, if past behavior is any indicator. Sigh....


Eric B said...

The naysayers could show up at the budget hearing tomorrow and advocate for this change...

Watching said...

I must leave funding for IB, deaf and hard of hearing, trauma informed instruction and teacher/administrative supports to deal with decreased suspension rates on my wish list.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Thank you, Eric; I will do just that.

kellie said...

Thank you Mel.

@ Watching, this recommendation is not to the exclusion of IB, deaf and hard of hearing etc.

One time budget items should be used for a one time purpose.

Ongoing budget items need to be addressed in the WSS. IB, deaf and hard of hearing, etc. These issues NEED to be built into the WSS. As a side note, the IB funding is built into the state funding formula and as such it is inexcusable that it is not built into the WSS.

Finally, while staff has not identified the SOURCE of the surprise funds, starting in 2008, with the adoption of the WSF, there have been MILLIONS in underspend in the Teaching and Learning budget every year. Based on the draconian and unnecessary cuts last October, I am very suspicious that the the bulk of the $11M was generated by UNDERSPEND on teachers. As such, IMHO, the money should be used as a budget buffer to prevent cuts in a budget category that has left over money .... every year.

In other words, if we have money left over EVERY YEAR in the teaching budget, then it is reasonable to assume that if we just take that money ONE TIME and front load it into the teaching budget, we can then create a positive cycle of using the prior year underspend to create staffing stability and then use the subsequent year's underspend to repeat that stability going forward.

Here is one last way to say this. If I were in charge, I would be requesting a comparison of the October staffing reductions and the subsequent June underspend. If the June underspend is the same or more than the October cuts, then it is clear the cuts were excessive.

So use the underspend to not keep repeating this practice.

N said...

What stands out for me is how clearly Kellie understands the issues and is able to articulate them with clarity to the rest of us. Do you ever get the feeling our administrative people just aren't that smart? I'm sorry to be so blunt but her ability to clarify so any topics should be a wake-up call to our district officials and board.

Eric B said...

Can someone remind me how many teachers are on the chopping block due to reduced numbers this spring? It helps to know if this is 10 or 50. I know it was in a thread a little ways back, but I'm not sure which one. Thanks!

Many Problems said...

One north-end school is loosing 13 teachers. The loss is not related to district cuts. Teachers are retiring, moving out of state etc.

I only say this to call attention to many issues within the district and because I am concerned about the upcoming teacher shortage.

Anonymous said...

Eric B, this is the post you are thinking of.

The same poster, Frustrated, linked to an article from WS Blog as a source, but that article doesn't spell out the FTE gains/losses. It references a letter that included the info but the full letter isn't posted. Would really like to see that letter.

It also links to the enrollment projections posted this week:

good fit

Anonymous said...

Eric B, I remember 15 at elementary, then about 6 at middle and a few more at high school. So something like 30, and that did not include non classroom teacher staff(pcp, specialists, etc). With some adds, but not very many(and not necessarily the same subjects). Can't go do the full accounting right now, but way too big of a number. I desperately hope they listen to Kellie.


Anonymous said...

Yes, keeping our professional teachers should be the priority. Our rapid cut then hire then cut system is traumatic for thousands of students every year. It ends up preventing many students from having a basic education for weeks, months or semesters. We should have a buffer. Simple. Love it.


Charlie Mas said...

People are always talking about putting the money to work in the classrooms. This is how.

Eric B said...

The reason I asked is that 30 teachers is relatively small potatoes if there's $11M waiting to be carved up. 30 teachers is ~$3M, maybe round up to $4M to cover October headcount losses. Bilingual IAs would be somewhere around $2M (based on JSIS raising $400K for this). A good chunk of IB would be $1M, which would also save the wood shop at Sealth. That leaves $4M for curricular materials, maybe LA or a middle school math adoption.


Anonymous said...

I doubt it would stretch quite that far... but the list is solid. Avoiding October cuts would most help our fiscally disadvantaged and black kids, so it should make our PC contingent happy. This should be a no-brainer. Why in the world would staff propose anything else?


kellie said...

Thanks everyone for the feedback and clarifications. Here are few additional ways to address this.

UNDERSPEND is a really good thing. It means that things are within budget and the budget folks are doing a great job. Everyone on the finance team should be commended. (The opposite is overspend and well ... overspend gets ugly)

The ART of managing underspend is a different thing entirely. The way this underspend is being presented is as if it was money to be carved up as Eric so aptly noted. However, underspend is NOT money to be carved up. Underspend is money that should go back into the pot to protect the budget.

This is a good reason why the budget folks are so conservative in the Spring. What the good reason is, doesn't really matter, just that the budget folks are under extreme pressure to be as conservative as possible every spring.

The CONSEQUENCES of this appropriate overly-conservative budget practice is another matter entirely. The Consequences are dreadful and EXPENSIVE to both finance and to students.

Unnecessary staff turn over from RIFs and rehires impacts every single building in the district.

Another way to say this is is to take the underspend and use that "win" to STOP doing Spring cuts.

kellie said...

And again, this solution is so simple and elegant and not sexy, that is most likely to be dismissed as irrelevant and foolish or pollyanna-like.

It is not simplistic. It is just rigorous financial discipline.

Anonymous said...

I only say it helps fiscally disadvantaged students because wealthy schools have been privately fundraising to protect their students from such harmful cuts recently- by paying teachers salaries when our district won't.


kellie said...

@ West,

I concur. One of the reasons I wrote the board about this recommendation is that it has a direct impact on every school AND a profound impact on the most fragile schools.

There is a small risk that 1-2 schools may wind up with 1 FTE above the WSS allocation. However, the only schools that would have that risk are high FRL schools with wide variations in enrollment. This staffing stability would do the most for the schools with the least.

Anonymous said...

I hope we can use the money to offset the decrease in PTA funds I fear is coming do to the 10 - 16% property tax increases that are hitting Seattle home owners.

It all adds up !

Taxed poor

kellie said...

This thread makes me miss Traci Libros even more.

When Traci was accountable for the enrollment projections, she was tireless in her protection of high FRL schools that had variable enrollment.

Anonymous said...

Good point Kellie. I wish the district could develop an institutional memory, and people like Traci Libros would have the opportunity to write down some of their wisdom before departing.